Traveller's Guide: Bavaria

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Germany's biggest state is gearing up for Oktoberfest, but there's plenty more to celebrate, says Andrew Eames

The largest of the 16 states that make up modern Germany, covering nearly one-fifth of the total land area, Bavaria is more than just a fine place to get drunk. It's a land of milk and honey, where the grass is impossibly glossy, the cows look like candidates for Bavaria's Next Top Heifer and the towns are neat and medieval. Those Oktoberfest-goers who manage to raise their heads out of their mass – one-litre beer glasses – will notice a skyline that's a fresco of mountains.

The 16-day event which open on 21 September, may be cracking good fun, but there are lots of other great festivals here, from raising giant maypoles on 1 May, to the autumnal cow parades of Viehscheid (viehscheid.info) towards the end of September when the cattle descend from the Alpine meadows ton be hung with bells and garlanded with flowers.

Bavaria puts a high value on tradition, partly for historical reasons. It was the last to join the German Federation, being largely Catholic compared to the dominantly Protestant Prussian north of Germany, and it remained a Kingdom until as recently as 1918. Today, there is still a sense of identity that occasionally turns into murmurs of separatism, but this is not a radical place. Bavarians are conservative with a small "c", they enjoy the finer things in life and they live in the part of Germany that has the most spectacular landscapes, the finest castles and the kindest climate. It's a place that repays wider exploration.

While many visitors associate "Bavaria" with the southerly region of lakes, mountains and castles (Upper Bavaria) where Germany comes to a crunching halt at the northern edge of the Alps, it is actually very diverse. North of Munich, for example, Lower Bavaria is a pastoral landscape dotted with rewarding cities such as Bamberg and Regensburg.

Both Bavarias are threaded together by the Romantic Road (romantischestrasse.de), one of Germany's first and most successful scenic routes, which starts in the Imperial city of Würzburg in the north and ends in Füssen in the south. Its highlights in Lower Bavaria are the three Unesco-listed medieval walled towns of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen, set in rolling countryside surrounded by vineyards, where bits of fairytale films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were made. In Upper Bavaria, the route is brought up short in the foothills of the Alps, where Neuschwanstein Castle – the model for the castle in Disney's Sleeping Beauty – rises above the plain on a lofty forest-clad crag. The Romantic Road is good self-drive territory, but is also on the coach-tour map, as with Shearing's (0844 824 6351; shearings.com) nine-day Bavaria and the Romantic Road itinerary, which ranges up and down the Road from a base in Langenau and costs from £589pp, including travel, accommodation and evening meals.

But Bavaria isn't just story-telling whimsy. The headquarters of Audi is here (on the Danube at Ingolstadt), while the stunning, cantilevered BMW World sits by the Olympic Park in the suburbs of Munich. Besides the museum and exhibition, it also offers factory tours (book well in advance; 00 49 89 1250 16001; bmw-welt.com, €8). Such is the pulling power of BMW that some 2.2 million visitors flocked here when it opened in 2007, far more than any traditional cultural institution.

Munich

The most liveable of Germany's big cities has a Mediterranean flavour. The central square, Marienplatz, is filled with living statues and musicians. Visitors gather to gaze up at the ornate, Gothic-revival flower-filled façade of the Neues Rathaus, particularly when the clock, with its 32 life-sized figures and 43 bells, re-enacts jousting scenes from the 16th century (11am, noon and 5pm).

Just five minutes' walk south is a true Munich tradition, the Viktualienmarkt, an open-air market with more than 100 speciality stalls as well as the city's most central beer garden (bit.ly/MunMarket).

North-east up Dienerstrasse is clear evidence of the wealth of the former kingdom of Bavaria. Here the Residenz (00 49 89 2 90 671; residenz-muenchen.de; €7) is the largest city palace in Germany, with 10 courtyards and 300 years of architectural styles.

Beyond is Odeonsplatz with a grandiose loggia copied from Florence, red-tiled rooftops and the burst of yellow that is Theatiner church, looking like the backdrop to an opera.

Cultural highlights

Bavaria is a place of palaces, castles and Baroque churches. Best known is the Neuschwanstein (00 49 8362 930830; www.neuschwanstein.de; €12). Also worth seeing is Linderhof (00 49 8822 92030; www.schlosslinderhof.de; €8.50), another castle created by Bavaria's eccentric King Ludwig II, where the interior is far more exuberant.

It is set in a luxuriant valley near Oberammergau, also a fascinating place for its world-famous Passion Play, staged every 10 years, in which almost everyone in the village plays a part (the next one will take place in 2020).

Closer to Füssen is Wieskirche (00 49 8862 932930; wieskirche.de; free) a Unesco-listed church the interior of which is all cherubs and sumptuous curlicues, full of gesticulating figures in white and gold, and messages asking for God's help.

Regensburg and Bamberg

Regensburg was once the capital of Bavaria and the seat of the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. It remains essentially medieval with 1,400 buildings of historical significance. The reason for its historic wealth is its Steinerne Brücke, a magnificent stone bridge built in 1130, which was the only Danube river-crossing between Ulm and Vienna for centuries. The city offers a Discover Regensburg package with two nights' B&B, one lunch and a guided tour from €159 (00 49 9415 07 5412; regensburg.de).

Bamberg, further north, trumps Regensburg with some 2,500 medieval buildings. The Imperial Residence, cathedral and nobles' district overlook the river Regnitz, with the more impoverished dwellings on the other side. The Old Town Hall, above, blushing with frescos, straddles the river.

For beer fans there are nine traditional breweries; Fässla also has rooms (00 49 951 26516; faessla.de; B&B €65).

Get active

The Danube cycle trail is one of the most popular in Europe. Flat and scenic, it is easy to do independently, although several tour operators offer organised trips. Recommended is the stretch from Ulm to Regensburg offered by Mercurio Bike Travel (020-8144 1199; www.mercurio-bike-travel.com). A six-night trip costs £755pp with hotels and meals.

In the mountains, hikers can stay in huge "huts" among the peaks, without having to descend each day (dav-huettensuche.de). Prices from €10pp.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Munich is always at a premium, but the Pullman Hotel chain has recently opened a new property in the trendy Schwabing district (00 49 89 360990; pullmanhotels.com; doubles from €106). There's a huge choice of hotels in the honeypot town of Füssen, but a particularly good spa-included choice is the lakeside Sommer, above (00 49 8362 91470; hotel-sommer.de; doubles from €148 with breakfast). A fine location in Bamberg is the family-run Hotel Brudermühle (00 49 951 955220; brudermuehle.de; doubles from €135 including breakfast) right by the water.

For a central location in Lower Bavaria with access to the Romantic Road and the Unesco cities, there's the traditional Gasthof Zum Goldenen Löwe (00 49 9473 380; luber-kallmuenz.de; doubles from €77, including breakfast) in the small town of Kallmünz.

Travel Essentials

The obvious point of entry is Munich, which is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 787; ba.com); from Heathrow, London City and Birmingham by Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com); and from Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Manchester by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com).

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) also flies to Memmingen (aka Munich West) from Manchester, Edinburgh and Stansted. It also flies from Stansted to Nuremberg, as does CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com) from London City.

By rail, the easiest approach is from London St Pancras with changes at Brussels and Frankfurt, with a journey time of about 10 hours. German Railways offers end-to-end fares at bahn.de from €100 each way.

The Bavaria card is useful. With it, two people can travel anywhere in the state over a period of 27 hours, for a total of €26 (and, on a sliding scale up to five people, €38). The railway website (bahn.de) also gives bus connections.

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